David Fromkin

A Peace to End All Peace

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A Peace to End All Peace Summary

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A Peace To End All Peace (1989), a historical study by American author David Fromkin, examines the actions of Western powers—primarily the British Empire—in the Middle East during and after World War I. Fromkin argues that poor intelligence, deliberate double-dealing, and political inconsistency led the British to create a settlement in the Middle East that would inevitability collapse into chaos. A Peace To End All Peace was a finalist for the National Book Critics’ Circle Award and the Pulitzer Prize.

Fromkin begins his narrative by summarizing the deep background of British foreign policy in the Middle East. Since the Napoleonic era, successive British governments had been preoccupied with the “Great Game,” a military and diplomatic contest between Britain, France, and Russia. For most of the nineteenth century, the British saw the Middle East—mostly under the rule of the Ottoman Turks—principally as a buffer, hemming in the expansionist dreams of the Russians.

When the First World War broke out, the British feared that the Russians—for now allies, but always seen as a threat—would seize the opportunity to expand into the territory of the Ottoman Empire, should it crumble. They decided to beat the Russians to it by backing an Arab revolt against Ottoman rule. From the outset, this was a wild plan, possible only because British intelligence on the region was non-existent. Fancifully, or arrogantly, the British believed that the Arabs would prefer a British protectorate to Ottoman rule—in reality, the Arabs preferred the Muslim Ottomans to any Christian ruler.

Fromkin offers a case study of Britain’s slapdash approach to Middle Eastern intelligence: Muhammed Sharif al-Faruqi, the man whom the British regarded as the reliable voice of the Arab faction. Al-Faruqi promised Arab support for British military action in the region and orchestrated a complete reversal in Britain’s planning for the post-war Middle East. However, al-Faruqi was lying about the extent of his influence, about the extent of Arab enthusiasm for cooperating with the British, and about the extent to which the Arabs could support the British even if they were willing.

Meanwhile, the British were lying to al-Faruqi. Fromkin accuses the British government of “sheer dishonesty” in its promise to help the Arabs achieve independence. In reality, he argues, the British “did not believe that Arabs were capable of self-government.” Arab self-rule would be a “façade” for British rule.

As well as weak intelligence, the British suffered from an incoherent government. The Secretary of State for War, Lord Kitchener, was perceived as having expertise in Middle Eastern affairs. This perception was entirely erroneous: he made bad decision after bad decision, backing the disastrous invasion of the Dardanelles and keeping British troops in Gallipoli long past the point at which they could achieve anything. At the same time, the British colonial authorities in Cairo and India had differing interests from their London counterparts, leading to mutual mistrust and deception.

This incoherence was not improved by a radical change of government in 1916. The new Prime Minister, David Lloyd George, had a more ambitious and more covetous approach to the Middle East than his predecessor. British troops under General Sir Edmund Allenby marched into Jerusalem in 1917. As yet, Zionism was not a preoccupation of the British government. Instead, the British were focused on refuting the existing claims of the French to territory in Palestine.

The picture became still more complex when the United States entered the war. President Woodrow Wilson insisted on self-determination for the peoples of the Middle East, but the British carefully maintained enough wriggle room in any agreement to allow for British protectorates across the region. At the same time, the British government adopted Zionism, partly for moral reasons, but largely because they believed it would further their influence in the Middle East.

As the tide of the war turned in the Allies’ favor, the extremely limited trust between the British and its Arab allies collapsed. All parties began positioning themselves to benefit from the aftermath of the conflict. In post-war negotiations, David Lloyd George used Wilson’s support for self-determination to limit French and Italian colonial ambition, while laying claim to Middle Eastern territories for Britain.

As these negotiations proceeded, rioting and revolution broke out across the whole region, from Egypt to Afghanistan. The British were forced to bring the French in to help stabilize the region, and they were also forced to appoint local rulers. Many of these appointments were arbitrary: the House of Hashem was given power in Iraq and the House of Saud on the Arabian peninsula despite its having dubious links to these regions. Another consequence of the unrest was British support for a border at the River Jordan between Palestine and Transjordan.

By 1922, the Middle East had been re-shaped by a series of arbitrary, improvised, and contradictory political moves on the part of the British authorities in which the British “themselves no longer believed.” Fromkin closes by glancing at the long history of conflict that has been the result.